Sea otter resolution gets first hearing in Senate committee

A Senate committee heard Monday from supporters and opponents of state involvement in the management of sea otters in Southeast Alaska.

The Senate Resources Committee held its first hearing on Senate Joint Resolution 13, which calls on the federal government to allow the state or a Native organization to co-manage the rebounding marine mammals and seek ways to increase harvest of otters.

“We’re urging the federal agencies to work with state, Native and local leaders to establish a sea otter management plan to protect the shellfish resources and subsistence availability,” said Sitka Republican committee member Bert Stedman, who sponsored the resolution.

Once nearly hunted to extinction in the region, otters are protected under federal law.

Only coastal Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt them and sell products made from pelts.

The resolution calls on Congress to change the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow expanded use of those pelts.

The measure also urges the transfer of otter management to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or National Marine Fisheries Service.

Commercial fishing organizations and municipalities have called for the changes to slow the increase in Southeast’s otters because of their impact on shellfish and other sea food.

Commercial sea cucumber diver Stephanie Jurries of Craig told of a rapid loss of fishing areas on the western shore of Prince of Wales Island.

“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has done a good job of managing our fisheries but their management strategy cannot take into account the impact of the otters,” Jurries said during testimony. “Something else needs to be done. Rural fishermen and communities need your help with this issue.”

However, the resolution is opposed by the Alaska Sea Otter and Stellar Sea Lion Commission, a statewide tribal consortium along with the Organized Village of Kake.

Wade Martin of Sitka testified against the Senate resolution and a companion bill in the House.

He and others thought more could be done under existing law to encourage hunting by Alaska Natives.

“I’ve personally probably shot over 3,000, easy over 3,000 sea otters in my career of hunting and in our region here in Sitka we’re on a rebound,” Martin said. “We’re picking abalone now and I see urchin, I see rock scallop, I see everything around in the water now where we used to see it. It’s taken me 25 years to get these guys in check here. If everybody did their part as far as being a quarter coastal Native we wouldn’t have this problem.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports annual harvest of otters in the region since the year 2000 has fluctuated, with a low of 255 to a high of 1,494 depending on the year.

The state reintroduced 400 otters to Southeast in the 1960s and population estimates now put their numbers upwards of 25,000.

The Board of Fisheries this month also drafted a letter to the Congressional delegation and secretaries of Interior and Commerce asking for review and changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The Senate committee set the bill aside for changes.

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